Interview: Ellen Allien

April 05, 2013

Ellen Allien is as thoroughly Berlin as a globetrotting DJ can be. Her long and multifarious career as a selector, recording artist, label head, booking agent and fashion designer took seed around the time the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and has endured through what she describes as the rise, fall and rebirth of electronic music counter-culture in that city. Over the phone from her apartment in the city's Mitte neighborhood, she speaks in an accented sing-song about the unending, occasionally parasitic dance between creativity and commerce, sounding more like a revolutionary soldier in her use of the word "radical" than someone who's spent a substantial portion of her life in dark clubs. She also talks about her poignantly free-floating new album Lism, which was inspired by a score she wrote for Alexandre Roccoli and Sevérine Rième's like-minded dance piece, Drama Per Musica, and takes its name, quite simply, from the word "listen."

You’ve been active in the Berlin music world since around the time the wall came down. Have you seen a lot of different scenes come and go? Of course I’ve seen the city changing. The political system is changing all the time, and I’ve seen different radical scenes in Berlin. There’s a lot of different [scenes]: the music scene, the art scene, the commercial scene, the techno scene, the right scene, the left scene. There are many different lifestyles in Berlin—that’s why many people move here, I think. When you meet a person in Berlin, they don’t ask you directly what is your job. It’s more like, How are you? It’s not important what kind of clothes you have on. And it’s not so much about all the capitalism stuff you have in other big cities. It’s changed, step by step, but it’s still quite free-form living. It’s cheap. It’s quiet.

I remember back when I was a techno kid—with short hair and sneakers, jeans, a t-shirt, nothing else—I went to one club called WMF, where I later became a resident. And I ordered a drink and they gave me a glass with a straw inside, and the real techno clubs never had that. And I was like, Ok, now something is changing here. Berlin was really, really underground at the beginning. It was very radical, and now it’s very touristic here. Many tourists are going out. But there are some clubs that still have that feeling of the past, and they book DJs playing classics mixed with new stuff, and the people on the dance floor are older and they understand the classics, and they flip out for it. I played on Sunday at nine o’ clock at a bar, and I played Kraftwerk’s “Das Model,” and the people flipped out, because they know the track. The people in Berlin, they know the music, and this is the electronic culture of all the years.

How has the dance music scene specifically changed? I mean, before, it was a very radical scene. Then ecstasy and all these drugs [came in], and all these different cultures from the East and West. The social, political movement of techno music and house and acid brought us together. Then it became more commercial. One techno rave track became number one on the dance charts of Germany, and some years before that, the Love Parade [festival] was born. The Love Parade become bigger and bigger. They moved to another street, which was bigger, and then they broadcast a live stream from the Love Parade on TV, and they interviewed the ravers and the people in the streets. The media couldn’t film in the cool clubs so maybe the cool people didn’t want to talk to them as much, so they just filmed stupid people. And then techno was over; it wasn’t hip anymore. If was too commercial for the people [who wanted techno to be] different and more radical, and for the commercial people, not commercial enough.

It started to find two sides again: the commercial part and the underground. New clubs opened and closed, and new people started making labels. I started doing my label [BPitch Control], presenting good music, bringing everything back and showing that it’s still interesting music. Many people in Germany missed that so much, because when the wall came down, everything changed here, and that music was our music— it was a very important part of our society. It was [our] street music. We were fighting to keep it alive, to do labels, parties, magazines, websites, whatever, with little money, and at the end, people all over the world had seen us, and then the hype surrounding electronic music from Berlin became bigger and bigger. At the same time, [Berlin started being hyped], because Berlin became interesting for artists. The artists did albums here; they felt good here because they felt free.

You said that at the beginning the scene felt more “radical.” What do you mean by that?  It’s still radical for me. It was radical and it’s still radical. There’s a commercial kind of party-makers. They don’t know so much about music, they’re just with us because it makes the club full. They pretend, but they don’t know. Then there’s another kind of people running companies—like me, I’m doing it in my way, how I respect the people I’m working with, how I pay them, how I treat them, what kind of music I sign, what kind of people I work with or not. Many artists coming to BPitch are trying to get signed because they are dreaming to be rich or becoming the captain in the club, to have a position. Sometimes when I ask young artists, Why are you doing music? The answer is, I want to be a DJ, I want to be in the club and have girls around me. Yeah, and there are other artists whom I've signed—they’re really artists. They need art to be happy. [They need] to be creative and to express their emotions because maybe they cant do it in a different way— only with music, or with videos, design, whatever. The good thing is that there’s all these different kind of people keeping it alive and also that music makes people happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s commercial or not. I always say that every tone has the possibility to make somebody smile, and I think this is something very beautiful.

How did you get involved producing the music for Drama per Musica? [Choreographer] Alexandre Roccoli asked me. I think he knew my music for many years, and then he just asked me if I wanted to do the music for this concept, and I really like the concept. It’s about the cultures in the past in the fifties in New York, and the culture today in clubs, and techno and the gay scene, and all those cultures a little bit outside—in the nightlife or in the streets. His idea was to bring it onstage as a boat, and the dancers are holding the sails, the big wings to hold them in the sea. They put microphones on stage and the dancers and I were holding the sails to keep the boat going. This is something about our scene, about the scenes in music or art, and just holding the boat. The microphones gave the sound to the people with my music I composed. He gave me, at the beginning, some lyrics, some text, about cultures which are going into the underground to be alive in the way they feel like. I did some music in my house with [BPitchcontrol artist and Drama per Musica co-producer Thomas Muller]. He was co-producer, and he recorded it with many analog instruments, like the strings, many drums, kitchen drums, whatever. 

He was playing all of them? I played all of them. I didn’t play the guitar. Philip Timm recorded it for me. I just gave him an example of how I wanted to have it and then he played it for me. And also the strings were played by string players. The synthesizers I played, the bells, some drums, the singing, the piano. Many voices sound like effects-- you know, with the microphone in my mouth. We did many, many, many recordings, and then we put everything together and he really liked it. Then we did our first performance at the Centre Pompidou for a dance festival, and it was actually sold out. Then they asked me to go on tour with them, but at this time I couldn’t do it. I left some music just lying around in my hard drive, and when I came back after Ibiza I didn’t feel so good, because it was quite grey and cold here and Ibiza’s really sunny and there’s the sea, not so much work for me, easy life. And so I came back here, and was like, Oh, I have to go to the studio. I thought maybe I should record my next album, some new tracks, and then I said, No, I don’t want to make tracks again. I always do that. It’s boring to make dance tracks always or songs with my voice. So I took out the recordings I really loved from Drama per Musica and then I went back in the studio with Bruno Prosato, and he helped me to bring everything new together, which was really nice. He’s a nice guy, really helped me with feeling free in the studio. Doing something deeper, something for me first— about what I feel, and not what people expect .

Drama per Musica was a little bit different, because I wrote more to what was going on onstage, minute-by-minute, but with Lism, I just followed my feelings. When I want to change something, I need to change it to feel good. With Lism, I just wanted to switch every part to a different dimension of your brain, to keep your brain busy when you listen— to open new curtains I always say, or music chapters, or feelings to wake you up. Music wakes me up if I hear something that I don’t expect. It’s just how I like to listen to podcasts also. I love podcasts.

You say the word “falling” a lot on one song, and “dreaming of you” is another refrain. Is there a dream theme on the album?  “Falling” is a very important word in my life—for me as a DJ, and as somebody who is running a record company, and also watching people when they dance. So first it’s about drugs— how you can fall into a drug, or fall into the music, or fall in love, or fall in life. In German, “fall in life” means that you fell—like you lost your job. For me, falling is a beautiful word, because it’s a life thing—up and down. You fall and you stand up. Of course, you can’t if you don’t have the energy, or you don’t have the power in your brain to get up. It’s just hard. But for me, I stand always up; I have no problem with that. Actually, I like to fall and get up. It’s something, which moves me—without falling, I can’t get up and I don’t have the kick. If I fall, I have more ideas and creativity, and I find I have the best ideas when I have the feeling that I’m falling, or I’ve fallen already, and also falling into drugs. And with “Dreaming of You,” it’s something like going under. You see it also on the cover. Going under water, you don’t hear anything. If you dream about something, it doesn’t matter what it is—the sky a person—you switch out [of reality] in this moment because you have a dream. “Conscience” I say at the end. It’s something I think everybody should have, for everything we do everyday.

Interview: Ellen Allien